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The role of community learning spaces during crises

It is their ability to be nodes of community interactions, and not the spaces themselves, that allow libraries and other community centers to generate value in difficult times.

Community learning spaces have proven to be highly effective in generating and strengthening bonds between members of a community. When they are focused on their community, they promote coexistence, collective learning, and active participation around local problems, both in normal times and in times of crisis.

The current crisis caused by Covid-19 has shown exemplary cases of how the use of these spaces—and the people who lead them—have played an extremely valuable role in two ways: 1) becoming platforms for the construction of community networks that they can react in an organized way, and 2) fostering highly meaningful learning experiences outside of school.

Spaces as nodes that strengthen and connect communities

In the United States, we see a couple of examples of the first of the above points. From setting up a contagion monitoring network within a community in Massachusetts, to distributing educational resources to be used offline among children and youth in a community in Oregon, community spaces have proven that when they focus on their aiming to be local nodes, they can activate communities to respond to crises through collaboration. These roles, both in times of crisis and outside of them, promote a healthier, safer, and more democratic life in the communities.

El equipo de trabajo de la biblioteca de OregonASK se mantuvo en comunicación constante para asegurarse de que las familias de su comunidad estuvieran seguras y con recursos accesibles para aprender en casa.  Foto: Mott Foundation / Oregon ASK

The OregonASK Library staff stayed in constant communication to make sure families in their community were safe and had accessible resources to learn at home.

Photo: Mott Foundation/Oregon ASK

Their role in counteracting lags in learning

Spaces outside of school can also create learning opportunities that allow those who are behind, or even outside the education system, to develop life skills. In times of crisis, this becomes essential, since with a forcibly closed educational system, girls, boys, adolescents, and young people will need spaces focused on strengthening key areas of their learning to avoid falling behind, or boost the productivity of those who do not attend school. school formally.

For example, the Fernando Botero library, located in the township of San Cristóbal, in the city of Medellín, is a good reference on how, by using community spaces as local learning centers, the community can appropriate a place and enhance its value. . In this case, the young people created a comicteca (comics library), which, through activities such as art workshops, collective readings and movies, promotes the inclusion and personal development of young people, positively impacting their life decisions.

The Parche Joven youth room (or comic library) became a comfortable and attractive meeting place for the youth of the community, who also enjoy all its resources.

Photo: Medellín Public Library System

The absent spaces in Mexico

In Mexico, most of the community spaces were not designed to actively serve the development of the communities. Commonly, they have a rigid, centralized operation, and a dynamic that is foreign to the context in which they are found. For this reason, it is very common to find that the people in charge of these spaces are more focused on fulfilling administrative tasks, and little oriented -and trained- to play a leadership role within their communities.

In the last 18 months we visited more than 120 local learning spaces, and we discovered that 9 out of 10 did not meet the most basic requirements for their operation: no user database, no monitoring of the use of the space. Much less with community networks. The most common example, public libraries, number 7,500 in the country but they have become not very relevant (without attractive content for the community) and little relevant (little value for the social dynamics of the community).

How to reverse this situation?

To turn these spaces into high-value assets that can help make access to resources more equal, bring relevant educational experiences to their users, and strengthen communities, both during normal times and in times of crisis, we consider two lines of action:

Reorient these spaces so that they dynamically serve the community. To achieve this, it is necessary to renew their physical space, provide them with new resources and guarantee that the personnel in charge have the best conditions to lead them.

The most important thing is that these actions must be carried out based on working alliances with the community, as well as maintaining the necessary operating conditions to constantly adjust and respond to the changing needs of its users.

Turn them into generators of physical and virtual networks that allow them to get to know their community and become deeply involved with it. In this way, it is possible to establish new links between different types of users, promote the actions of the already existing ones or arouse the interest of all of them to actively participate in the solution of current and future crises or common problems.


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